Well, here we are. In the ongoing collision between pop culture and real life that is the year 2017, The Punisher has already suffered from bearing perhaps a too-strong resemblance to real news events. Comic books are typically thought of as “escapist” literature, but the story of a lone man with guns wreaking his vengeance has a different resonance in a world where mass shootings now happen so often they barely even register in the news anymore. I want to be up-front: This show is going to produce some uncomfortable associations and parallels with our current hellscape of a world. We’ll discuss those as they come up, but my co-recapper Chancellor Agard and I are still interested in processing this show as entertainment, and we’ll judge it that way.
The first fascinating thing about this show is that it begins at the end of Punisher’s journey — or at least, it seems to. When we first met Jon Bernthal’s Frank Castle back in season 2 of Daredevil, he was a man on a mission to avenge the people who murdered his family. In this show’s opening montage, Frank finally finishes his job. We see him cross off the last few people he believes have connections to the massacre: Frank runs down a few armed motorcyclists, chokes a guy to death in an airport bathroom with his own necktie, and snipes a Mexican drug lord from all the way across the border in Texas.
Although it’s a fun montage, it also has some of those disturbing parallels I was just talking about. That sniper shot is the kind of lazily violent fantasy that feels all-too-common in modern America; together with running down the cyclists, it’s a dream of killing people who ostensibly deserve it without ever leaving your house or car. The point-of-view cinematography that lets viewers look through Frank’s scope as he guns a man down is particularly uncomfortable since we don’t even really know what this criminal did. The rest of the episode carefully builds up another set of villains in the form of Frank’s co-workers at a construction site. We see these men plot, scheme, rob, and generally act cruel to their fellow man, so when the episode ends with Frank destroying them, it feels genuinely cathartic.
How does Frank end up at said construction site, you ask? Well, after finishing off that guy in the airport bathroom, Frank gets rid of his weapons, burns his signature skull-emblazoned shirt, and tries giving up the Punisher mantle to try living in peace with his ghosts. It doesn’t last long. (Recap continues on page 2)
Before returning to the Punisher himself, I’ll take a moment to discuss the series’ other primary lead: Homeland Security agent Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah). In an episode of montages, Dinah gets a good one of her own, featuring her pulling into work. Dinah’s recently returned from Afghanistan, where she may have been on the verge of uncovering a massive conspiracy. She wants to continue her investigation into what happened to a friend of hers over there, but is shut down by boss Carson Wolf and saddled with the sardonic Sam Stein (Michael Nathanson) as a partner.
Now back to our main player: With a beard to make himself anonymous, Frank finds a new way of channeling his grief and anger rather than gunning people down: Namely, he starts hitting a wall with a hammer and doesn’t stop. The rest of the construction crew is creeped out by his silence, with one notable exception: Donny Chavez shares his lunch with Frank, and they trade stories about their backgrounds. Donny, too, lost his family; at a young age, his parents were killed in a car accident, leaving him rather directionless in the world. Unfortunately, Frank is not good with people anymore, and he shoos Donny away. That leads Donny into the arms of the evil construction guys, who need his help robbing a criminal poker game.
Not being an experienced criminal, Donny screws up the job. While the other workers (the leader Lance and his sidekick Paulie) hold the gangsters at gunpoint, Donny is supposed to scoop all their money. But he’s nervous and keeps fumbling, eventually dropping his wallet face up on the ground, showing everyone there his “Donald Chavez” driver’s license. The gangsters make it clear they’ll come after him, so after the escape, Lance and Paulie immediately turn on Donny. They have the bright idea of trapping him in the construction site’s cement mixer so he’ll never be found.
Unfortunately for them, Frank is at the site as well, hammering away with his hammer. He intervenes to help Donny and systematically destroys all of the evil construction workers with his hammer. It’s pretty fun, helped by the fact you actually feel like these scumbags deserve it. But Frank doesn’t stop there; he also goes and kills all the gangsters before they have a chance to go after Donny. This is a well-shot scene, as Frank kills the lights, so the only illumination comes from his firing guns. Then there’s only one man left…whom Frank proceeds to shoot with his own gun, making the whole thing look like a massive murder-suicide. The only person who notices anything is amiss is a mysterious hacker, who ends the episode by quoting the first story arc of Garth Ennis’ acclaimed Punisher comic run: “Welcome back, Frank.”